In their defence: A&S PhD candidates continue final exams virtually

May 7, 2020 by Michael McKinnon - A&S News

Kogulan Yoganathan could not have predicted he would ultimately defend his PhD thesis from his bedroom. 

“It’s not what I had expected, but it ended up working really well and it’s a funny story to tell now,” says Yoganathan. On April 9, he took his final oral exam virtually toward his PhD in immunology from U of T’s Faculty of Arts & Science. 

U of T moved all its final oral exams online for PhD candidates on March 23 in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. More than 100 have since taken place across the University, including 61 for Arts & Science candidates. Only three exams have been rescheduled. 

It’s a huge change from a process that traditionally required all PhD candidates to present in person with no more than two voting members attending virtually, explains Lisa Haley, senior advisor and manager, program completion and postdoctoral services with U of T’s School of Graduate Studies.  

“This is an entirely opposite process to what we usually have, so the decision caused a bit of panic at first,” she says. “It’s always been in the student’s interest to not have such a reliance on technology because the exam has to be postponed if we lose quorum.” 

The School of Graduate Studies has created a process that recreates the traditional experience as closely as possible. Up to six voting members and an external chair attend, and a rigorous question period follows the candidate’s opening presentation. Candidates leave the virtual call for private panel conversations and are welcomed back afterward.  

“We’ve just made it remote; all the other rules are still in place but they’re being undertaken in a different way,” Haley says. 

Options for the virtual exam include Zoom, Skype, Microsoft Teams and Quercus, among others, with most taking place via Zoom. Meetings are password protected and meeting links are not posted anywhere so as to prevent unwanted intrusions — also known as "Zoombombing." There have been no such interruptions to U of T oral exams to date. 

I think it helped set me at ease. Let’s be honest, you’re never absolutely as comfortable as you would be in your own living room or bedroom. It helped just having a comfortable environment around me. — Kogulan Yoganathan

“It’s all gone very smoothly. This is working out really well and we’re so glad this is taking place so students aren’t being held back,” Haley says. 

Yoganathan agrees. While he would have preferred the traditional experience of defending his thesis in person, he says the virtual nature may have actually worked to his advantage. 

“I think it helped set me at ease,” he says. “Let’s be honest, you’re never absolutely as comfortable as you would be in your own living room or bedroom. It helped just having a comfortable environment around me.” 

The school outlined what to expect from the exam, the technology he’d be using and the schedule of events. Despite one technical glitch — his internet failed, forcing him to connect to his phone via “hot-spot” — the process was smooth. The questioning was as probing and rigorous as he expected in a thesis defence.  

“I think that’s in large part due to the professors and the chair, who respected the importance of the exam. This is an environment of mutual respect and we all took the process very seriously. We all knew the final exam is a big deal,” he says. 

Celebration, on the other hand, was not as hoped.  

“I can’t really do anything so the celebrations have been put on hold,” he says. “I celebrated with my fiancée; we had dinner and were all smiles for the night. It was great to see all my hard work come to fruition, even though the exam wasn’t in person.” 

For Debanjana Kundu, learning the University was moving its final oral exams to a virtual platform was a great relief. She’d been worried they were going to be cancelled altogether.  

“I contacted my advisor, and he said, ‘Don’t worry. The University will take care of it,’” recalls Kundu, who took her final exam toward her PhD in mathematics in the Faculty of Arts & Science on April 8. “That was very comforting to hear.” 

Already used to working with Zoom, Kundu performed a dry run in front of friends the week prior to her exam to work out any kinks. She prepared herself for technical glitches, but the exam went smoothly. 

“It was very similar to a normal PhD defence, except at the end nobody shook my hand,” she says. 

Like Yoganathan, Kundu’s post-exam celebration was understated. Without an in-person convocation in the future, her boyfriend Rahul Arora, a PhD candidate in the Department of Computer Science in the Faculty of Arts & Science at U of T, fashioned her a graduation cap from slides from her thesis defence presentation. She called her parents in India when the exam ended at about 1:30 am their time. 

“They said, ‘Congratulations, now we’re really tired and we’re going to sleep.’”